It is a question worth asking, given today’s debate about “natural” winemaking practices. The message is confusing leaving consumers baffled. The answer requires a review of 7,000 years of wine-making history. The first fermentation, for example, was more likely the result of serendipity rather than design. Spontaneously, damaged grapes fermented in harvesting pots and mystified farmers tasted wine for the first time.
Those same farmers enjoyed the taste of their creativity, and its effects. They became fascinated by the difference between fermented grape juice and unfermented fruit. They went on to investigate, making empirical observations. They sought to harness natural events and biochemical reactions in repeat “experiments” which could describe early “vintages”, today.
The foundations of science and technology – and biotechnology, in particular – were therefore established and since then, scientific knowledge has grown at an exponential rate. There have been breakthroughs in chemistry and biology, transforming our understanding of the natural world as we know and understand it – or believe that we do.
Yet, throughout history wine has retained a mythic aura, cloaked in mystique. Maybe that is why Louis Pasteur said: “A bottle of wine contains more philosophies than all the books in the world.”
But winemaking is not a matter of chance or magic. Left entirely to nature, the result is variable, unreliable and can be undrinkable. The completely natural result of fermenting grapes is vinegar.
So how is wine made? It is created through a process of fermentation using the right yeast, nourished by the right nutrients. Louis Pasteur was the first to discover this in the late 1800’s. Before his discovery, no one knew that yeast played a role in the production of alcohol: there had been little progress since the time of the ancients. Winemakers knew that fermentation happened spontaneously after fruit was crushed but the results were variable: sometimes the result was wine, sometimes it was vinegar.
Wine is not, therefore, a “natural” product – not in the form we know it. Every decision the winemaker makes (or fails to make) affects style and quality. Wine does not make itself. And never before has there been so much opportunity for the winemaker to direct viticulture and vinification to shape wine according to consumer preferences.
But the pressure is on. There is heated argument as to whether today’s wine is better – due to the contribution of scientific knowledge, technology and research – or whether so-called “natural” wine is better. There is a new-found nostalgia for the wine of yesteryear made with a minimalist approach.
Proponents of “natural” wine reject, for example, “interventionist” practices that prevent oxidation and microbial spoilage. They oppose the use of ingredients to correct balance, or the use of enzymes to aid fermentation. They reject the application of cultured yeasts to avoid the risk of stuck ferments and off-flavors, and they oppose filtering and fining to remove potential impurities. These are the marks of “industrial” products, they say, not “natural” wine.
On the other hand, wine researchers are frustrated by such arguments, waiting to uncork the next-generation of technical innovation. As they have done through history, wine’s innovators are keen to assist in the crafting of unique, stand-out wines that meet ever-shifting consumer expectations while underpinning profitability and sustainability.
The truth is that winemaking is both art and science and always has been. The supposed dichotomy between “natural” and “unnatural” wine is a false one.
Professor Sakkie Pretorius is the Managing Director of the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI).
This article first appeared in the July 2011 edition of The Adelaide Review.